Canadian Olympic apparel supplier receives ‘coal’ medal for environmentally unfriendly manufacturing process

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinions for CBC Sports. For more information on CBC Opinion Sectionplease consult the FAQs.

The Parade of Athletes is always my favorite part of the Olympics and Paralympics. Not for excessive nationalism, but to see athletes from around the world and learn about the sports that are booming in different places.

East Timor, Madagascar, India and Eritrea all have skiers competing in Beijing. I appreciate all the athletes beautifully dressed in their cultural outfits and winter fashion inspired by their country of origin, their traditions and their history.

Kimberly Newell (Zhou Jiaing) is a Canadian-born hockey player who is China’s starting goaltender. Newell collaborated with Chris Joswiak of Brian’s Source For Sports in Windsor, Ontario. They brought his vision of Chinese dragon-themed goalie pads to life. That’s wonderful.

In October, the Team Canada uniform kit for the Beijing Olympics was unveiled. I was relieved that the Hudson’s Bay Company was not part of the kits due to its brutal history against the Indigenous peoples of Canada.

Lululemon Athletica, a Canadian clothing company, has unveiled a series of outfit combinations in various textures with deep, vibrant reds and browns contrasting with a warm cream color. There were vests that looked like comforters and patterns that resembled the topical geography of a cold, crisp Canada in the middle of a wintry wonderland. I loved everything down to the velvety look shoulder bag embossed with a maple leaf.

The uniforms were designed in partnership with Lululemon, the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee. The Vancouver-based track and field giant is expected to provide COC and CPC wardrobes through to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. I love a long cardigan and a puffy parka. I also happen to look great in these colors and as a Muslim woman who covers, I appreciate winter clothes.

The launch video was so compelling that I immediately decided to buy some $28 socks (don’t tell my kids) and an oversized sweatshirt from the website. I made sure that I would support the athletes. I joined in on the jokes online and enjoyed how winter fashion exuded such style despite the sky high prices. But not everyone was in love.

The day before the Parade of Nations, during the opening ceremony, an article fell on my Twitter timeline. Massachusetts-based climate reporter Phil McKenna reported on the protests outside the Lululemon flagship store in Vancouver. As part of the protests, Stand.Earth, an environmental advocacy group, presented Lululemon with a ‘coal medal’, a symbol of the harmful emissions of coal used in the manufacture of clothing for the Canadian team at the Vietnam and China.

According to McKenna, “the fast-growing apparel brand relies heavily on coal energy to source, weave and dye its fabric and manufacture its garments.”

It made me stop in my yoga pants and dig deeper into this issue. It was not a new problem. In May, The National Observer reported that Stand.Earth demanded that Lululemon eliminate coal as an energy source from its production and supply chain, and shift to less polluting renewable sources.

But not just in factories in North America, but all over the world. It is absurd to decide to care about air pollution in Canada and the United States, but to deem it unnecessary in East Asia. There have been compelling reports from activists, including Erdene Batzorig, a woman from Mongolia who now lives in Vancouver. She wrote about the “green image” that Vancouver boasts about and how it contradicts the reality of practicing favorite athleisure brand, Lululemon.

On their website, Lululemon has declared a series of commitments that they have not yet fulfilled. Batzorig insists they are not good enough.

Dr. Jules Boykoff, a political scientist and former professional footballer, is an expert on the ecological effects of sporting mega-events. He told me in a voice note that the Olympics has long had a greenwashing problem, and Lululemon is no exception.

“Lululemon maintains that it takes an environmentally and health conscious approach to its business practices,” he said. “And it’s not asking too much of them to live up to those lofty ideals to completely eliminate coal from its production practices.”

Dr. Boykoff insists that Lululemon could stand up and be an industry leader in this regard. It is important for a company that equips Canadian athletes to synchronize their practices and their ideals.

As the athletes smiled through their masks in the Parade of Nations, I thought about where their uniforms came from.

Right now, athletes and para-athletes need to worry about COVID-19 protocols, travel safely, and do their best in elite sport competition. Should they also be worried about it?

But if they represent us as a country, we should be at the forefront of demanding what is best for them, and less taxing and less harmful to the planet. It affects us all.

Japanese national athletes pose with sustainable uniforms made from recycled clothing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, made by Japanese sportswear brand ASICS. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images)

It is important to look at climate change and how it is affected by the Olympics and the companies that sponsor Canadian athletes and teams. We can’t really love a story if we only read certain chapters and ignore the rest.

Our athletes create sports history. Shouldn’t we demand better to be on the right side of history? For those who argue that fashion criticism has no place in the Olympics, Team Japan had sustainable uniforms made from recycled clothing, created by ASICS, for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. isn’t perfect, but there are models of design ideas that merge with sustainability. Maybe Lululemon can venture out to find creative solutions instead of polluting.

Our athletes and para-athletes work hard to reach the top step of the podium. The company that equips them should try to be at the forefront of their industry when it comes to environmental protection and that’s what I would like to see in future parades at the Olympics.

In the meantime, I will refrain from buying sports-related products labeled “Canada” and become more committed to protecting the world, despite my overpriced socks.

About Dale Whyte

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